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Stalin´s purges

After the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, a power-struggle ensued within the ruling Communist party and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) eventually came out on top. He governed the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death, through his positions as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1922-1952 and Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union in 1941-1953.

Even though Stalin initially governed the Soviet Union as a part of a collective leadership, he quickly consolidated power into his own hands, and by the 1930s, he was the de factor dictator of the USSR.

The type of regime formalized and adhered to by Stalin became known as Stalinism, and had a strong emphasis on rapid industrialization, collectivization of agriculture, the political theory of “socialism in one country”, and the subordination of the interests of foreign communist parties to those of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Stalin established a one-party totalitarian police state and built a cult of personality.

During his leadership, Stalin carried out a series of purges where people were executed, imprisoned in normal prisons or sent to labour camps. Early on, purging was mostly done to get rid of opposition (real or imagined), but later on the scope of these purges widened as Stalin´s programs needed more and more people to work in the labour camps.

Stalin´s ascent to power

Joseph Dzhugashvili was born in Gori, Georgia in 1879. He attended the Tbilisi Spiritual Seminary before becoming in early activist in the Bolshevik movement. It was within this movement that he began using the name Stalin, which is derived from the Russian word for steel.

Stalin was exiled to Siberia twice by the Tsarist authorities, but with the triumph of the Russian Revolution in 1917 he could leave Siberia and rejoin the Bolshevik activists. In 1922, he became General Secretary. Even though this post was not a very prominent one, Stalin managed to use it in clever ways to fortify a personal power base and assume control over the Communist Party´s bureaucracy.

When Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, a power-struggle broke out within the Communist Party. Several figures participated, but Stalin and Leon Trotsky were the most prominent ones. By 1927, Stalin had managed to get Trotsky expelled from the party, and in 1929 Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union. (Eleven years later, Stalin´s agents located Trotsky in Mexico and killed him.)

Killing to collectivize the peasantry and industrialize the nation

In the late 1920s, Stalin began launching the so-called Five-Year Plans to collectivize the peasantry and turn the Soviet Union into an industrialised state. As a part of this, people were killed on a massive scale; either outright or through planned famines and similar deliberate hardships. One of the more well-known events from this era was the 1932-1933 famine engineered by Stalin to subjugate the Ukrainian peasantry. Stalin dramatically increased the grain quota required as tax from Ukraine, and the result was a famine so severe that it killed between six and seven million people. (Source: Robert Conquest, “The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine” 1986, Oxford University Press). Stalin´s Five-Year Plans for the industry were also implemented through massive killings, where millions of convict labourers were worked to death in deplorable conditions.

Purging the Communist Party – and other parts of society

Increasingly fraught with paranoia, Stalin became obsessed with cleaning out real or perceived dissidents from the Communist Party, and also from other parts of society. Well into the early 1930, he still met with opposition within the party, where many were calling for greater internal democracy, reconciliation with the peasantry, and other types of reforms.

Stalin wanted to clear away all real or perceived threats to his power, and he also needed more convict labour for the industry. The solution: a series of massive internal purges, which took place in the Soviet Union from the mid-1930s and onward.

Some of the purged individuals were killed right away, but many were instead sent to horrifying labour camps. The Russian acronym GULAG (ГУЛАГ) stands for head administration of the camps, and was a government agency set up by order of Vladimir Lenin. During Stalin´s rule, this system of camps swelled dramatically. By 1938, about 7 million purged individuals were in labour camps.

From 1930 to 1953, roughly 18 million people were sent to labour camps in the Soviet Union. Of them, roughly 1.5 to 1.7 million are believed to have died there or as a result of their detention. (Source: Steven Rosefielde, “Red Holocaust”, 2009, Routledge. p. 67) Knowing the exact numbers is difficult, and researchers reach different (typically higher) numbers if they rely on memoir sources instead of official archival data. It should also be noted that the labour camps had a habit of releasing prisoners who where near death, e.g. because they had reached the final stage of an incurable disease. That practise brought down the number of prisoners that actually died while still living in a camp.

It should be noted that some specific labour camps, for certain eras, had a very high death toll that much exceeded the average. In the late 1930s, some especially horrifying camps in the Kolyma gold-mining region had a survival rate of just 2-3%. Kolyma is located in the Arctic part of the Russian Far East, just south of the East Siberian Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Under Stalin, Kolyma became known and feared for its especially horrifying labour camps, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would later refer to Kolyma as “the pole of cold and cruely”. Many of those sentenced to hard labour in Kolyma did not even get there – they died en route to the area. The winter in Kolyma lasts for up to six months, with the average winter temperatures ranging from −19 to −38 °C.

More about the purging of the Communist party

As mentioned above, Stalin launched a series of purges where the aim was to solidify his power and clean the Communist Party and the governmental organizations and institutions of opposition against him. In addition to the Communist Party, both the Army and the NKVD (secret police) were early targets for purging, and so were scientists and engineers.

The assassination of the popular Leningrad party leader Sergei Kirov is widely seen as the starting-point for Stalin´s purges. Kirov was killed in December 1934, and the killing was allegedly ordered by Stalin.

After the death of Kirov, Stalin used emergency security legislation to get his purging going on a large scale. Individuals accused of terrorism lost some of their previous rights regarding due legal process, and the authorities involved were ordered to speed up their work. When someone was sentenced to death, the NKVD had orders to execute them right away. (Source: Frank Smitha, “Terror in the Soviet Union”)

Stalin was especially worried about the “old Bolshevik elite”, such as Lev Kamenev, Grigori Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin. In a series of “show trials” held between 1936 and 1938, these early Bolshevik activists were accused of conspiring with rightist and Trotsky-ist elements, and some of them were also accused of being complicit in the murder of Sergei Kirov back in 1934. They were convicted and sentenced to death or long prison terms based on evidence extracted through torture and threats against family members.

Dumfounded, the world watched three plays in a row, three wide-ranging and expensive dramatic productions in which the powerful leaders of the fearless Communist Party, who had turned the entire world upside down and terrified it, now marched forth like doleful, obedient goats and bleated out everything they had been ordered to, vomited all over themselves, cringingly abased themselves and their convictions, and confessed to crimes they could not in any wise have committed.” (Source: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”, vol. 1, p. 408.)

For Stalin, getting rid of these well-established party members were not enough, however. Soon, he grew paranoid with many of their successors, and consequently got rid of them too.

“The new generation of Stalinist careerists, who had adapted themselves completely to the new system, still found themselves arrested. … They were succeeded by younger but similar characters, who again often fell quickly.” (Source: Robert Conquest, “The Great Terror: A Reassessment”, p. 224.)

Purging of the USSR Army (the Red Army)

Stalin´s purge of the USSR Army rid it of a lot of skilled personnel and is believed to have contributed significantly to the Nazi Army´s success during the early months of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. With approximately 35,000 military officers having been either shot or imprisoned, the USSR Army was lacking in experienced leadership.

One well-known example is the execution of the brilliant military officer Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky in 1937. In the early 1920s, he drew both national and international attention as Soviet Forces under his command successfully repelled the Polish forces from Western Ukraine, and by 1935 he had earned the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union – and the nickname Red Napoleon. He was an important force in the modernization of the USSR Army in the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the field of aviation, and he was also notable for his development of the theory of deep operations. It was thus a great loss of know-how for the USSR Army when Tukhachevsky, in 1937, was suddenly executed for treason.

It should be noted that executions where not the norm; imprisonment or being expelled from the Communist party were much more common results of being purged during Stalin´s purge of the Army in 1937-1939. Also, approximately 30% of the purged officers were eventually allowed to return to service. (Source: Stephen Lee, “European Dictatorships 1918–1945”, page 56.)

Purging the wider society

It soon became clear that Stalin was not satisfied with having purged the Communist party, the Army and certain governmental institutions and organizations. Soon, the purging moved onto the wider society, and ordinary citizens were both encouraged and pressured into “unmasking” those around them.

As no real trials were required to sentence someone, ordinary citizens lived with the knowledge that that life could change in an instant if someone reported them.

Any adult inhabitant of this country, from a collective farmer up to a member of the Politburo, always knew that it would take only one careless word or gesture and he would fly off irrevocably into the abyss.” – Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”, vol. 2, p. 633.)

Even a minor infraction, real or purported, could result in many years of labour camp imprisonment.

A tailor laying aside his needle stuck it into a newspaper on the wall so it wouldn’t get lost and happened to stick it in the eye of a portrait of Kaganovich [a member of the Soviet Politburo]. A customer observed this. Article 58, ten years (terrorism). A saleswoman accepting merchandise from a forwarder noted it down on a sheet of newspaper. There was no other paper. The number of pieces of soap happened to fall on the forehead of Comrade Stalin. Article 58, ten years.” (Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”, vol. 2, p. 293.)

In some cases, mass arrests were prompted by the need to fulfil certain quotas set by the authorities. This was a well known practice during the years when Nikolai Yezhov was in charge of the NKVD, i.e. 1936-1938.

In some stories, the police clearly knew they were arresting innocent people. For example, an order reportedly arrived in Tashkent to ‘Send 200 [prisoners]!’ The local NKVD was at its wits’ end about who else to arrest, having exhausted all the obvious possibilities, until it learned that a band of ‘gypsies’ (Romany) had just camped in town. Police surrounded them and charged every male from seventeen to sixty with sabotage.” In the city of Zherinka, “‘Ivan Ivanovich’ (…) had his wife sew rubles [Soviet currency] into his coat because the NKVD was taking all the men in his town.” – Robert W. Thurston, “Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia”, 1934-1941 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996], pp. 79-80, 150.


Adult males

The Stalinist purges targeting wider society targeted both men and women, but some specific events that took place within this context were clearly gender-selective. As we have seen in many other parts of the world and epochs of history, adult men were considered more of a threat – which made them a more probable target for certain types of attacks.

According to some reports, entire groups of men were taken in one swoop by the NKVD. ‘Almost all the male inhabitants of the little Greek community where I lived [in the lower Ukraine] had been arrested,’ recalled one émigré. Another reported that the NKVD took all males between the ages of seventeen and seventy from his village of German-Russians.

Adult women

When a person had been arrested, relatives of that person could be arrested and punished under the counter-terrorism legislation, including wives, and children aged 12 or more. One of the four categories for those sentenced to execution or long prison terms were “Wives of enemies of the people”.

Still, women only made up a small minority of those executed and imprisoned on political grounds during the purges. As far as we know, women also had a higher survival rate in the incarceration camps.

Women on the whole seem to have survived [incarceration] much better than men,” writes Conqurer, while also making a note of how “(…) in the mixed[-sex] camps, noncriminal [i.e., political-prisoner] women were frequently mass-raped by urkas [male criminals], or had to sell themselves for bread, or to get protection from camp officials.” –  Robert Conquest “The Great Terror: A Reassessment”, pp. 235, 264, 315

In many cases, wives of “enemies of the people” were left alive and out of prison, but punished indirectly other ways. In addition to losing their husband (permanently or temporarily), they could lose their employment and income, their permits, and be kicked out of their accommodation. After selling what possessions they may have had, they would be forced to eke out a living from occasional work and/or rely on friends and relatives that could, and dared to, help them. (Source: Robert Conquest, “The Great Terror: A Reassessment”, pp. 235, 264, 315)

In “The Gulag Archipelago”, Solzhenitsyn writes about women whose husbands, sons or fathers had been sent away to labour camps.

They were the most scared of all. They feared shiny nameplates, office doors, telephone rings, knocks on the door, the postman, the milkwoman, and the plumber. And everyone in whose path they stood drove them from their apartments, from their work, and from the city.” (Alexandr Solzhenitsyn “The Gulag Archipelago”, vol. 2, p. 664.)

The Soviet census of 1959 – a chilling read

The Soviet census of 1959 is a chilling read, as it shows a population much smaller than could expected – and one where a lot of males are missing.

In this context, it is also good to remember than when Stalin commenced his purge, the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union, had already experienced massive losses of human life – especially adult males. With his purges, Stalin drastically worsened an already precarious situation. World War I in 1914-1917 and the Russian Civil War of 1917-1923 had both inflicted its heaviest losses in the age group 16-49 and predominantly killed males. (Source: Richard Pipes, “Russia under the Bolshevik regime”, New York A.A. Knopf, 1993) The massive famines of the early 1920s and early 1930s killed both men, women and children, and were thus less gender-selective, while the mass executions of kulaks (“wealthier” peasants) overwhelmingly targeted males for execution or imprisonment in labour camps. (Source: Robert Conquest, “The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine” 1986, Oxford University Press).

In his book “The Great Terror: A Reassessment”, Robert Conquest points out how the Soviet census of 1959 revealed the Soviet population to be some 20 million lower than Western observers had expected after making allowance for war losses. He also notes the dramatic gender-imbalance: a lot of men are missing from the age 30 and up.

  • The age cohorts up to 25-29 had the usual 51% women and 49% men balance.
  • From 30-34 years of age (at the time of the census), the gap widens to 55% women and 45% men.
  • From 35 years of age at the time of the census, the gap becomes even larger, reflecting the loss of adult male lives in wars and Stalin´s purges. For the age group 35-39 years, there were 61% women and 39% men.
  • For the age group 40-54 years, there were 62% women and 38% men.
  • For the age group 55-59 years, there were 67% women and 33% men.
  • For the age group 60-69 years, there were 65% women and 35% men.
  • For the age group 70 years and older, there were 68% women and 32% men.

Source: Robert Conquest, “The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties” [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968], pp. 711-12.

By comparing the different age groups to each other, Robert Conquests reveals how the age imbalance is probably largely due to Stalin´s purges and cannot simply be explained away as losses on the battlefield. The purges mainly killed off people in the age span 30 to 55, while battlefield losses tend to have their largest impact in the younger adult age groups.

Many women died as a result of the war and the purges. But in both cases the great bulk of the victims was certainly male. From neither cause should there be much distinction in the figures for the sexes for the under-30 age groups in 1959. Nor is there.

For the 30-34 block the[re] (…) is a comparatively small difference, presumably indicating the losses of the young Army men in their late teens during the war.

In the 35-39 group, which could have been expected to take the major war losses, we find figures of 391 to 609 women.

One would have thought that these men, in their early twenties in the war, would have had the highest losses. But the proportion then gets worse still, and for the 40-44, 45-49 and 50-54 [cohorts] remains a set 384 to 616.

Even more striking, the worst proportion of all comes for the 55-59 age group (334 to 666: in fact in this group alone there are almost exactly twice as many women as men).

The figures for the 60-69 group (349 to 691) and for the 70 and over group (319 to 681) are also much worse than the soldiers’ groups.

Now all authorities agree that the Purge struck in the main at people “between thirty and fifty-five”; “generally, arrested people are all thirty or over. That’s the dangerous age: you can remember things.” There were few young or old, most of them being “in the prime of life.” Add twenty years for the 1959 position.

Precise deductions are not possible. Older men died as soldiers in the war. But on the other hand, the mass dispatch to labour camps of prisoners of war returned from Nazi hands in 1945 must have led to an extra, and non-military, death rate among the younger males. So must the guerilla fighting in the Baltic States and the Western Ukraine, which lasted for years after the war; and so must the deportations from the Caucasus and the general renewal of Purge activities in the post-war period. But in any case, the general effect of the figures is clear enough. The wastage of millions of males in the older age groups is too great to be masked, whatever saving assumptions we may make. We here have, frozen into the census figures, a striking indication of the magnitude of the losses inflicted in the Purge. (Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968], pp. 711-12. Emphasis and spacing added.)

Did the purging stop after 1938?

1938 is often quoted as the peak of Stalin´s purges, but that doesn´t mean than they stopped after that. It is correct, however, that the frenzy subsided somewhat after 1938, and World War II also meant that Stalin´s attentions turned to other groups.

In September 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany divided Poland between them and nearly half a million Poles (almost elusively males) and 200,000 Polish prisoners-of-war were sent to camps were a vast majority of the camp inmates died. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin sent many of the surviving camp inmates to serve in the armed forces.

After the end of World War II, Stalin sent returning Soviet prisoners-of-war to Soviet labour camps. Instead of being celebrated as war heroes, they were labelled as suspected traitors.

These are just a few examples of how the Soviet labour camps kept filling up long after both the “purge peak” of 1938 and the end of World War II in 1945. By the time of Stalin´s death in 1953, roughly 12 million people where held in such camps.

Dismantling of the camps

Following Stalin´s death, Nikita Khrushchev emerged as Soviet leader, serving as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1953-1964 and as chairman of the country´s Council of Ministry in 1958-1964.

During his rule, Khrushchev denounced many of Stalin´s actions, spoke of the perils of cult of personality, and put the Soviet Union on a program of de-Stalinization. Most of the camp inmates were released, and many of the more prominent victims of the purges had their reputations restored posthumously.

When Khrushchev was stripped of power in 1964, the new leader Leonid Brezhnev (who ruled in 1964–1982) moved somewhat in the other direction, and implemented a (limited) rehabilitation of Stalin´s reputation.